I’ve written before about the powerful mental benefits of communing with nature – it leads to more self-control, increased working memory, lower levels of stress and better moods – but a new study by psychologists at the University of Rochester find that being exposed to wildlife also makes us more compassionate. Nature might be red in tooth and claw, but even a glimpse of greenery can make us behave in kinder, gentler ways.
The study consisted of several experiments with 370 different subjects. In each experiment, people were exposed to either natural settings (pristine lakes, wooded forests, remote deserts) or man-made environments (cityscapes, skyscrapers and highways). They were then tested for a variety of “prosocial” behaviors, such as compassion and generosity. For instance, two of the experiments used a simple trust task, in which a person is given a $5 prize and told that they could share their prize with an anonymous stranger, who would then be given an additional $5. (There was no guarantee that the second person would return any of the winnings.)
The scientists found that subjects exposed to nature were significantly more likely to open their wallets. Furthermore, increased exposure to nature led to an increased willingness to share with strangers.
The question, of course, is why a mere glimpse of nature could lead to behavioral changes. The authors concoct a variety of clever hypotheses, including the possibility that nature “helps connect people to their authentic selves”. (For instance, subjects who focused on landscapes and plants reported a greater sense of personal autonomy, at least as measured by the following statement: “Right now, I feel like I can be myself”.) According to the scientists, our “authentic selves” – and not the alienated, artificial selves crowded into 21st century cities – are more likely to exhibit the primal traits of hunter-gather society, in which we depended on each other for survival. I’m not entirely convinced, as I generally avoid explanations that cobble together existentialism and untestable evolutionary psychology.
Another possibility, of course, is that cities are stressful places, and that nature makes us more compassionate because we’re surrounded by tranquil beauty. When we’re free from the helter-skelter of the urban street, filled with reminders of work and pressure and time and money, we can lapse into a more sensitive kind of cognition, more attuned to the needs and feelings of others. Because we’re not overwhelmed by strangers we can take the time to notice the individual face. As usual, Emerson got it right: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”